The Cliff House

on San Francisco's west side

For a nice history of San Francisco's Cliff House, visit wikipedia's entry on it. The Cliff House has, in terms of the age of San Francisco that is, a long history. A hotel was first built on the site in the 1850s and there have been four versions of the house since (referred to variously as "Cliff House 1", "Cliff House 2", etc). Fires have been the cause of destruction of two of them. Here are some photos of the old - and new - Cliff Houses.


CLIFF HOUSE 1 / 1858 - 1864

Cliff House
Cliff House 1 was a small building, used mostl as a hotel. The location of the above two shots will become familiar. Almost all photos of the various Cliff Houses were shot from the beach just south or from the cliff to the east.

CLIFF HOUSE 2 / 1864 - 1894

This version of the Cliff House is interesting if for no other reason than photos of it shows that people went to the beach in those days wearing suits, top hats and full on dresses. This version of the house received additions to it during it's time. It was lengthened and then, as can barely be seen in the overhead view below, a large stable was added to the right.

There was no transportation, then, aside from a long horse and buggy ride from the east side of town around the top of the city and then to the house. I guess you had to dress up.

Cliff House Cliff House Cliff House

CLIFF HOUSE 3 / 1896 - 1907

Cliff House 3 is, by far and without doubt, the best of all of the Cliff Houses. It's the biggest, stretching from the road to the cliff precipice, and it's the tallest (as I recall it was about 280 feet from the roof to the ocean).

Note about the overhead shots: Across the street from the cliff house is a - you guessed it - cliff. Atop this cliff, in the 1890s, Adolf Sutro built a fort-like park. In the middle of the fort at the top of the cliff was a building called the Dolce far Niente . Almost all of the overhead shots of the Cliff Houses from the 1890s on were taken from the top of that building. The building, along with the cannon and statues that were on the parapet, is gone now.

Cliff House
Cliff House 3 Under Construction in 1895
Someone Photoshopped this one. It's clearly a photo of the beach from recent times with the beautiful building colorised and superimposed. An impressive job, whoever did it!
Cliff House Cliff House

When Adolf Sutro bought the Cliff House and surrounding land, he built a park across the road and up the cliff. The park was built like a fort complete with a cannon and statues. In the middle of he park was a building that many of the overhead photos of the Cliff Houses were taken from. The photo above left was taken right from near the parapet (which is still there). The photo above right was taken from the building in the park (which is not still there).


2 Hats
This is the Two Hats photo of Cliff House 3. That's me on the left and my friend Steve Smith who, with his wife Marlene, drove me all over San Francisco in August 2009 to take the "now" shots. The photo is ironic in that we probably took the longest trying to line this photo up correctly but looking at it now, it's clear that we should have been way over to our right, towards the ocean. Marlene took the photo and it was difficult. She had to stand with a paper print of the photo on the left with the ocean breeze constantly whipping it around. Thanks to Steve for supplying the hats for this shot.

Cliff House Fire Cliff House
Sadly, Cliff House 3, the greatest of them all, burned down in 1907. I don't know how they got there so quickly but a lot of photographers showed up to capture the burning of this great building (a search of the web will show many photos including some of fire fighters trying lucklessly to contain the fire).



CLIFF HOUSE 4 / 1909 - 1970s

If you've viewed photos of the various Cliff Houses, it might surprise you to find that the Cliff House that stands today was built in 1909. It went through a major renovation in the 1940s and then was renovated back to it's original 1909 look sometime in the 1970s.

The Cliff House is a great place to visit. Being on the ocean, it has a clean air feeling to it. It has a fantastic view of Seal Rocks and the ocean.

Cliff HOuse 1909 Cliff House
This is how the Cliff House looked when it was rebuilt in 1909; and it is how it looks again today.
In 1949, the building was remodeled extensively.
Cliff House
Cliff House
Here is a shot of the Cliff House taken in 1956.


Cliff House

The Cliff House got a psychadelic paint job in the late 60s or early 70s. Notice the yellow building on the left. It was called the Camera Obscura and showed a reflected image of the rocks.

CLIFF HOUSE 4 / 2009

Cliff House
This is a view from Sutro Heights taken in August 2009. Well....everbody loves trees, right? I love trees. But not when it comes to taking Then and Now photos. It's amazing to realize how few trees there were around our cities even 50 years ago. Just about whereever you go now to recreate a photo, beloved trees are in the way...trees that weren't there before.
Cliff House

The above is a panorama of the Cliff House taken from approximately across the street from where Playland by the Sea used to be.



Just across the road and up the cliff from the Cliff House is Sutro Heights Park. There is a fortress style parapet there that used to have cannons and statues. It is barely visible from the road these days due to the trees.

The stairway, left, is still easy to see. The parapet itself is more difficult, visible on the far right in the "Now" photo. In the "Then" photo, you can see the cannon and statues that used to line the walls as well as the building from which most of the overhead views of the Cliff Houses were taken.




Heading south down the coast from the Cliff House, there used to be Playland at the Beach, the rollercoaster visible at the left (upper left photo), built somewhere around 1910. It was a great place to spend the day but some time around the 1970s, cooler heads prevailed. Playland was torn down and expensive condos were put there instead.

In the old photo, far right, you can see an old windmill. Amazingly, the windmill is still there. There is a vacant piece of land along the beach in San Francisco. In fact, there are two windmills and they're a nice sight to see in this modern day. Look closely at the "now" photo and at far right you can see a V shape arising from behind the condos. Those are blades from the windmill visible at left - just about the only thing that still exists from the earlier photo.

Cliff House
Three almost identical shots of the sidewalk by the Cliff House, the third one taken in August, 2009. The "Camera Obscura" has been renamed to the original "Giant Camera" and moved to the left..




These photos were taken from Sutro Heights, above the Cliff House. The old photo shows the land (just beyond the smoke stack, center, where Playland at the Beach was to be built. As Playland began operation in the 1880s that gives an idea of how old this photo is. For more, very interesting information about Playland by the Beach, check out Wikipedia

You can see the windmills in the old photo, but they are difficult to make out in the new one.

Note: These photos are impossible to perfectly recreate now. The old time photographer stood in a section right near a cliff that is fenced off and covered with, you guessed it, trees.

In the old photo above, Playland has begun to be built, as roller coasters are visible now. The ratio of cars to horse carraiges has expanded since the previous "then" photo. The "Now" photo? No mo' Playland!


Adolf Sutro was quite a developer. He built Cliff House 3 (the best one), Sutro Heights and the amazing Sutro Baths in 1896. A huge building it was, too. There were seven "baths", one was fresh water and the others salt-water. Much more information can be found in an online article.

The foundation for some of the baths are still there to explore.


The basement to the red building with the smokestack connected to the larger Bath buildings (on the "Then" photo) is visible in the "Now" photo. It's difficult to tell what the building was for. None of the "rooms" in the basement are connected to each other in any way nor is there sign of stairs leading into them. Note: My grandfather used to drive us all over San Francisco showing the sights and he drove us to the Sutro Baths in the early 1960s and it was fortunate because the building burned down in 1966.

As you can see, there were three "sections" to the glass covered building. The far right one covered seating for audiences. The middle section covered the six salt water pools and the far left one covered the huge fresh water pool.

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